Benjy Ferree’s second album is an ambitious attempt to tell the ultimate Hollywood story, the grimly totemic life and death of child star Bobby Driscoll, the original Peter Pan. Driscoll, known as Bobby Dee, played Peter Pan in the Disney film when he was 16. It proved to be the high point of a hitherto unstoppable child star career, and the rest has a relentless inevitability: the roles drying up, drugs, guns, assault charges, Warhol’s Factory, rehab, more drugs, and finally a lonely, down-and-out death at 31 in a derelict East Village tenement.
More even than Judy Garland, Bobby Dee lived the perfect Hollywood tragedy, matching Hollywood’s star factory, dream machine façade to its dark flipside, where bad things happen to actors when they wake up and realise it was all a dream. As Driscoll himself put it, he was “dumped into the garbage”.
So how does a songwriter like Benjy Ferree, with an unashamed love of stomping blues and stomping rock, tackle this modern Icarus myth. Listeners to his second album may be taken aback to find that the medium of choice is predominantly glam rock. This album has been touched by the hands of Marc Bolan and Freddie Mercury, a flamboyant but and risky tactic.
Opening track ‘Tired of Being Good’ takes us straight to heart of the album, with its chorus “I’m tired of being good when you know I want to be bad.” It has a driving boogie beat, and Ferree’s powerful rock vocal immediately touches off the comparisons with T-Rex, paper and comb interlude aside. The songwriting is very assured indeed, and almost enough to persuade you that this is a good idea. The lyrics in particular are delightfully constructed, as in “My conscience is a cricket, every time I curse you know he writes me a ticket”, referencing maddening Disney C-lister, Jiminy Cricket, who hovers at Bobby Dee’s shoulder. But there’s also something bombastic about the chorus of “Brother, come back home”, which substitutes energised, stylised performance for subtlety.
This is followed by a full-blown gospel number, ‘Fear’, in which Benjy and at least 200 backing singers chorus “It’s called fear, yeah. Oooh, it’s the gospel truth!” Ferree is determined to show how versatile his music is on ‘Bobby Dee’, but this excursion lurches rapidly into self-parody.
And then the glam rock is back. “Big Business” is one of the best tracks on the album, launching into a pitch perfect rendition of the blues-driven, kick ass, glam rock. Bolan would have killed for the chorus, “Bring out the pixie dust!”, which effortless trumps most of his own lyrical achievements. Ferree takes the same approach on several more tracks, starting with the next, ‘What Would Pecos Do?’, based on a fictional, US super-cowboy called Pecos Bill, raised by coyotes, who deals with danger by tying everyone up and asking questions later. The song itself is a two chord, Aerosmith romp. And next up, ‘Blown Out (Gold Doubloons and Pieces of Eight)’, with a similar feel, has been compared favourably with the White Stripes. Jack White’s genius is to write songs that sound so absurdly simple that they can’t possibly be new. It’s a lot harder than it seems. ‘Blown Out’ has a promisingly charged central riff, but is held back by its lyrics, which are tangled in an unconvincing pirate metaphor, and its vocals, turned up to 11 throughout.
If you’re not loving Ferree’s 70s style by this point, you’re in for a long ride. The album has 14 tracks, the majority over 4 minutes long. Some really don’t work, for example ‘Let it Be’-inspired rock ballad, ‘The Grips’, which is banal, soft rock; ‘I Get No Love’ with its trying “I get no love in the morning, yeah” chorus; and the turgid ‘When You’re 16’, which is weighed down by lyrics such as “It takes a lot of a person to look around and form a good impression”. Other, such as ‘Pisstopher Chrisstopher’ (despite its dismal title) and “Coming to Me, Coming to Me” (which unexpectedly detours into metal) are much more enjoyable rock-outs.
Around the time of his first album, ‘Leaving the Nest’, Benjy Ferree looked like Bonnie Prince Billie and his music sounded like a cross between Oldham’s folk/country songcraft and Jack White’s RnB rocking. This created an exciting, intriguing balance, but ‘Bobby Dee’ suggests it’s a hard one to maintain. The tracks on this album have more going on in them – more backing musicians, more effects, more production. Ironically for its brittle subject matter, this has eliminated much of the fragility that seemed to lurk behind the strutting rhythms. Individual tracks on here would make anyone sit up and listen. But across an album, they pay diminishing returns and the gap between Ferree’s musical approach and the story he is telling widens into a chasm. Less definitely equals more when it comes to big-booted, glam-country, hard rock blow-outs.